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Swiss Army Pillows: Headrests of Eastern Africa

Headrest, 20th Century
Karamojong culture; Uganda
Wood; 7 5/8 x 6 ¼ x 5 7/8
Gift of Anne and Long Shung Shih

 Sleep Like a Log

Sleep is one of those fundamental human needs all peoples of the world unconsciously share in, but the trappings of sleep outside of beds, pillows, sheets, blankets, and duvets are rarely covered. Up until recent times, throughout much of the world headrests were either regularly or situationally used to fulfill a similar function to pillows. Elevating one’s head from the ground can have many positive benefits, and though wooden headrests may appear to be uncomfortable, a look at four headrests from Uganda, Ethiopia and South Sudan show just how much more flexible they can be than a feather-filled bag, especially when it comes to things like distancing one’s head from the scorpions and snakes endemic to the region.
Precarious Slumber
Headrests throughout Africa fulfill a wide array of roles other than their primary use as a pillow. In some cases, the objects often hold spiritual importance such as the ability to communicate with one’s ancestors. They may play a role in marital rites. Sometimes headrests are prestige objects. This style of headrest was traditionally made by the Meneg clan of the Ugandan Karamojong. Some Karamojong claim that these headrests hold special magical powers of guidance and the ability to commune with the community’s ancestors, but the established function of these headrests was utilitarian. Like many of the Nilotic peoples of the border regions of Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Uganda, the Karamojong were traditionally transitory livestock herders. Keeping track of one’s cattle was of the utmost importance. This incredibly thin headrest is prone to tipping over should the user shift in their sleep, the idea behind this being that the user does not run the danger of falling into a deep sleep and losing track of their herd during the night.
               Headrest, 20th Century
               Sidama culture; Ethiopia
               Wood; 6 7/8 x 7 ¼ x 2 7/8
               Gift of Anne and Long Shung Shih
          Headrest from the Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, 2030–1640 BC. 
          From the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Nights of Sidama
Block wooden headrests were made by both the Sidama and Gurage of Ethiopia. The shape of these headrests can vary from rectangular to inverted conical section and sometimes incised geometric carvings will decorate the sides of the headrest’s body. They fall into a similar utilitarian category as the headrests of the Karamojong, but rather than to keep the sleeper suspended in a state of restlessness, instead these headrests were used to protect elaborate hairstyles or headdresses worn as symbols of status. For cultures like the Turkana of Kenya this would protect colorful clay headdresses attached at the back of one’s head. For the Sidama, the block headrest was used by women as evidenced by the rich, dark patinas on the headrests’ platforms, resulting from conditioners made with butter. In the second most-spoken language in Ethiopia, the word used roughly translates to “tomorrow, you.” Despite the discomfort of using a wooden headrest, most promote proper alignment of the spine and elongate the neck, both attributes of beautiful people in many Ethiopian cultures. Long-term use of a headrest works to create a better version of oneself for tomorrow.
               Headrest, 20th Century
               Oromo culture; Ethiopia
               Wood; 6 1/8 x 6 1/8 x 4 3/8
               Gift of Anne and Long Shung Shih
          Headrest from the Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, 2030–1640 BC. 
          From the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
No Longer in Denial
The history of headrests in Africa dates at least as far back as the Egyptians of Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (2,686 BC). The low-humidity conditions these wooden objects were kept in have allowed for them to survive in a relatively well-preserved state for the last 4,700 some years. What is especially fascinating though, is that many styles of Ethiopian headrests made up until the 20th Century find antecedents in ancient Egyptian objects. The block headrests of the Sidama are a self-evident comparison, but scholars argue that the headrests of Ethiopia’s Oromo peoples, which feature a cone-shaped base and a concave leaf-shaped platform are also evolutions of originally Egyptian forms.
Headrest, 20th Century
Lotuka or Rendille culture; Kenya or South Sudan
Wood; 7 5/8 x 13 ¼ x 3 7/8
Gift of Anne and Long Shung Shih
Headrest Au Naturel
Aesthetic, function, and availability of materials all have a complicated interplay in eastern Africa. Headrests which appear to rely on the natural shape of wood with branches protruding as legs are rarely found haphazardly. The Lotuko and Dinka of South Sudan, Rendille of Kenya and many more groups create such works with varying degrees of human intervention. Some—like this headrest—have carved platforms and straightened legs and others are designed to look like polished tree sections coincidentally in the shape of a headrest. These headrests can appear to be extremely spindly, however like most African headrests they are made from one piece of wood. Here they natural strength of the branches for legs and as such can support a considerable amount of weight. During the day many headrests like this one would have doubled as stools.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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